Beijing’s two ministers overseeing state and public security have committed to protecting national security and interests to the hilt in Hong Kong as the territory reels from the shock of the new national security law handed down by China.
Minister for Public Security Zhao Kezhi, also a state councilor whose rank is on a par with a deputy premier, said he would personally “guide” Hong Kong’s police to implement the new law while coming down hard on offenders. Zhao made the remarks last week while briefing subordinates on the legislation, according to reports.
In the meantime, China’s usually publicity-shy State Security Ministry has taken a clear public stance and vowed to ensure Beijing’s newly established national security office in Hong Kong can wield its new power.
Appearing for the first time on TV, State Security Minister Chen Wenqing told state broadcaster China Central Television on Sunday that the new law was a call to arms for the entire state security apparatus and that its agents inside and outside Hong Kong would stand fast to back up the new national security office.
The sweeping new law aims to punish secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces in Hong Kong.
Beijing is reportedly assembling 300 military police and mobilizing equipment near Hong Kong. The team of elite officers will soon figure prominently among the state agents set to enter the former British territory. They will also have extraterritorial powers under the law, giving them a free hand in Hong Kong’s separate jurisdiction under common law.
Although Hong Kong’s police and judiciary are still entrusted with investigating and trying most cases concerning national security, Beijing can step in via its office and agents under “special circumstances.”
Japan’s Kyodo News noted that these mainland officers, under the control of the national security office and reportedly immune to checks by local law enforcement agencies, would act primarily as Beijing’s eyes and ears to collect and analyze intelligence and gauge social sentiments.
The fact that these mainland officers are professionally trained and carefully vetted by China’s state and public security ministries also means they will be ready to take jurisdiction over certain cases perceived as sensitive.
Asia Times reported last week that the majority of these agents and officers would be picked from the public and national security agencies in Guangdong province across the border, meaning many of them will likely speak Cantonese.
At the same time, Beijing appointed last week a well-known hardliner from Guangdong to head its new national security office in the city.
Zheng Yanxiong, as director of the office, will also command 300 paramilitary police. Zheng is known for both leading negotiations with protesting peasants and ordering a crackdown on movements protesting against land grabs in Guangdong in 2011.
He has also made a name for himself through his rhetorical broadsides against Hong Kong and overseas media for what he has seen as “biased” coverage of the protests against land and property appropriation in Guangdong.
Related reports about soon-to-be-dispatched mainland officers have intensified apprehensions about Beijing’s intentions under the new law, and whether these officers will overstep to usurp the role of the city’s police.
Hong Kong’s opposition lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said these mainland officers would face no checks or balances when they carry out their security-related operations and he wondered if local police would in future just abdicate their duties.
“Will these mainland officers sideline local police and keep watch on people and arrest anyone as they see fit?” Lam said.
“We don’t know. They may impinge on people’s rights. The Chinese soldiers stationed in Hong Kong are strictly confined to their barracks but it appears to me that these officers are given carte blanche to do whatever they like.”
Hong Kong’s government said it would not comment on such speculation and that mainland agents would abide by the city’s laws.
Tian Feilong, a law professor with the Beihang University in Beijing, said mainland officers would be necessary for Beijing’s national security office to discharge its duties, including investigating sensitive cases, and that Hong Kong’s police could also draw in external talent.
Tian said Hong Kong would have jurisdiction over most cases, as noted in the law, and these mainland officers would likely lie low in the city. He opined that many media reports had distorted the intent of the law to strike fear in local residents and expatriates.
“As long as Hong Kong can do the job [to protect national security] and locals abide by the law, Beijing would not be troubled and these officers won’t have reasons to step in,” Tian said.
In a bid to justify Beijing’s moves, other members of the city’s pro-Beijing camp have recently cited allegations made by Edward Snowden, a US National Security Agency operative-turned-whistleblower, of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agents being embedded in the US consulate in Hong Kong.
“At least Beijing has made public the presence of its people in the city, now a Chinese territory, and promised that they will respect the city’s laws,” said one pro-Beijing lawmaker.